Dec 26, 2010

An American Civil War message is deciphered 147 years later.

As strange stories go, this is a good historical one, for those of you who are interested in history out there. The BBC has released this piece of news telling how a glass vial from the Civil War has been opened, revealing a coded message to the desperate Confederate commander in Vicksburg on the day the Mississippi city fell to Union forces 147 years ago, and how a former CIA codebreaker has cracked it's meaning. With a bit of extra research, this whole story has unfolded:

The piece of paper with a message for a Confederate leader was rolled up, tied with string and sealed along with a bullet in a glass vial. It remained a mystery for 147 years, until a CIA codebreaker cracked the message after a museum had the vial opened. The dispatch offered no hope to doomed Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton, as it basically said: Reinforcements are not on the way. The encrypted, 6-line message was dated July 4, 1863, the date of Pemberton's surrender to Union forces led by Ulysses S. Grant, ending the Siege of Vicksburg in what historians say was a turning point midway into the Civil War, and it came from a Confederate commander on the west side of the Mississippi River across from Pemberton. 

Lt. General John C. Pemberton,
Confederate Commander of the
Army of Vicksburg.
The bottle, less than 2 inches in length, had sat undisturbed at the museum since 1896. It was a gift from Capt. William A. Smith, of King George County, who served during the Vicksburg siege. A retired CIA code breaker, David Gaddy, was contacted, and he cracked the code in several weeks. The code is called the 'Vigenere cipher,' a centuries-old encryption in which letters of the alphabet are shifted a set number of places so an 'a' would become a 'd' — essentially, creating words with different letter combinations. The code was widely used by Southern forces during the Civil War, according to Civil War Times Illustrated. The source of the message was likely Maj. Gen. John G. Walker, of the Texas Division, who had under his command William Smith, the donor of the bottle. The full text of the message to Pemberton reads:

'Gen'l Pemberton: You can expect no help from this side of the river. Let Gen'l Johnston know, if possible, when you can attack the same point on the enemy's lines. Inform me also and I will endeavor to make a diversion. I have sent some caps (explosive devices). I subjoin a despatch from General Johnston.'

The last line seems to suggest a separate delivery to Pemberton would be the code to break the message, and the date of the message clearly indicates that this person has no idea that the city was about to be surrendered.

Battle of Vicksburg: Assault on Fort Hill.
The Johnston mention in the dispatch is Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, whose 32,000 troops were encamped south of Vicksburg and prevented from assisting Pemberton by Grant's 35,000 Union troops. Pemberton had held out hope that Johnston would eventually come to his aid. The message was dispatched during an especially terrible time in Vicksburg. Grant was unsuccessful in defeating Pemberton's troops on two occasions, so the Union commander instead decided to encircle the city and block the flow of supplies or support. Many in the city resorted to eating cats, dogs and leather. Soup was made from wallpaper paste.
After a six-week siege, Pemberton relented. Vicksburg, so scarred by the experience, refused to celebrate July 4 for the next 80 years.

And what is the significance of the bullet in the bottom of the bottle? Experts think that the messenger was instructed to toss the bottle into the river if Union troops intercepted his passage. The weight of the bullet would have carried the corked bottle to the bottom.

For Pemberton, the bottle is symbolic of his lost cause: the bad news never made it to him. The Confederate messenger probably arrived to the river's edge and saw a U.S. flag flying over the city, figured out what was going on, knew that his mission was pointless and turned back.

For more on the battle of Vicksburg follow this link.

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